SFOpera - From Child Pianist to Chorus Director, John Keene Traces His Passion for Music

From Child Pianist to Chorus Director, John Keene Traces His Passion for Music

 John Keene

The star tenor lies dying, fatally wounded in a sword fight. The music is low, mournful. It is Act III of the Wagnerian masterpiece Tristan and Isolde, and legendary Canadian tenor Jon Vickers is in command of the stage, captivating the audience with his performance of the doomed knight.

Or he would have been, had it not been for an insidious enemy: the scratchy throat.

In a widely circulated recording of that fateful 1975 performance, an insistent cough echoes out from the audience. It hacks. It hawks. It sniffles and snorts, gasping forward, defying suppression. Its impudence demanded justice. And so a knight stepped forward.

“Shut up with your damn coughing,” Vickers barked from the edge of the stage, with all the irascibility of a man who had just spent the last three hours burning his vocal cords, singing some of Wagner’s most punishing music.

And with that, Vickers returned to his scene, and the music continued as if nothing had happened.

In the audience that day was a budding young musician: John Keene. He was nerdy, a self-described “good Pennsylvania Dutch boy, who spoke when he was spoken to and followed all the rules.” He and his family had recently relocated to Texas. It was there, sitting next to his mother at the Dallas Opera, that he was discovering opera for the first time: its bigness, its richness, the overwhelming complexity of it all.

After the Vickers outburst, Keene shot a look at his mother, thinking, “That was really weird. Is that supposed to happen?” Opera was new to him then. From high up in the balcony section, the performers on stage looked like little dots.

“I remember being scared for the rest of the performance: ‘He’s going to do it again!’” Keene says with a laugh. But there was a flash of recognition in the young Keene: He saw in Vickers someone who was serious about his art. Keene was pretty serious about music, too.

At age 5, Keene had started playing the piano. Then came the cello. By age 12, he was performing with the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra, and by high school, he was determined to become a professional musician.

But solo performance didn’t call to him. Instead, he found mentorship in Gwendolyn Koldofsky, one of the pioneers responsible for elevating accompanying work to the level of art. It was the collaborative aspect of music that drew him in.

Soft-spoken but dedicated, Keene recalls that his career advanced organically: One opportunity led to another. Openings had him criss-crossing the country. He served as chorus master in Sarasota, Florida. As assistant conductor in New Orleans. As a vocal coach in San Francisco’s Merola Opera Program.

All the while, he collaborated with some of opera’s biggest stars, including Renée Fleming and Anna Netrebko. When he worked with 20th-century icon Renata Scotto, he regaled her with memories of being a teenage boy at the Dallas Opera, watching her perform the death scene in Anna Bolena.

“She fell backwards down a staircase and her long, red-hair wig was trailing behind her,” Keene says. “As a kid, I think I literally gasped out loud. Like, ‘Oh my God.’ It just slayed me.”

Keene’s most recent appointment has been as head of music staff and chorus master at Seattle Opera. But that’s about to change: In 2022, Keene joins San Francisco Opera as its newest chorus director, succeeding Ian Robertson in the role.

When he flew to San Francisco last October to audition, he arrived on a day when Beethoven’s Fidelio was set to be performed. “When I came to Seattle, that was the first show I did there. So it was a funny kind of coincidence,” he says.

His audition was to prepare some musical excerpts with the San Francisco Opera Chorus: a bit of La Bohème, a bit of Carmen, some Tannhäuser and Nixon in China. It was the standard mix of languages and styles, designed to test prospective applicants.

But instantly, Keene says he felt chemistry with the performers. “My head was turned when I worked with the chorus,” he explains. “We really just connected in the rehearsal. And that caught my attention because that doesn’t always happen.”

About a week later, Keene was offered the position. It didn’t take him long to say yes.

Now, ahead of his return to the Bay Area, Keene shares the story of how a 5-year-old pianist turned into one of America’s most successful chorus directors—and what he’s looking forward to most in his new role.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How are you feeling going into 2022 with all this kind of change on the horizon?

JOHN KEENE: Well, it's wild. That's for sure. And you're absolutely right. It's a lot to handle and it's a lot to coordinate, I guess.

But I'm mostly really excited because of the potential and the future that holds such exciting and interesting things in San Francisco. So whenever I get a little overwhelmed or a little bit out of sorts—just because there's so much on my plate right now—I take a second to think about that, and everything kind of calms down.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Where did you grow up and what did your parents do?

KEENE: I was born and raised in Lancaster, Pennsylvania—Pennsylvania Dutch country. None of my family are or were musical really in any way.

Although, I've always found it really fascinating that my mother—who grew up on a farm, really not of any means whatsoever—taught herself to play the piano from articles that were published in the newspaper.

That always really struck me, my whole life, that she had that level of interest in it and that she was able to do that totally on her own, just from reading. Sort of like a chef teaching himself to cook by reading a recipe in the newspaper or something like that.

So maybe there was some musical something or other in our genes, but it wasn't as if I had a musical family that I was born into. I really discovered it myself. And I started with piano lessons when I was quite young. I must have been age 5. Later on, I also studied the cello.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: I can imagine you could see any number of things on TV as a 5-year-old: football players, newsmen, superheroes. A lot of kids just like at that age are like, “I’m going to be Batman.” Why music?

KEENE: It’s really tough to say. I don't remember a eureka moment, like, “This is it!” But even in my earliest memories, I can remember responding to music. There was just something about sound, musical sound, that caught my attention as a really, really young toddler.

But even before that, my very earliest memories are kind of related to hearing the organ play in church. At school eventually, when I was in kindergarten, one of my strongest memories of that year is that there was singing and that our teacher played for us. And, once a week, we had a music teacher that came and played the piano. I just thought that was the most fascinating and most beautiful thing.

I just really felt a strong pull to explore music. Actually, when I started to study it, to be honest, like any kid, I felt kind of like, “Oh boy. Now I have lessons. And it's like being at school. You’re going to have grades and homework and all of that stuff.” So that part of it wasn't so thrilling. But the more I got into it, the more I loved learning about it and getting better at it, in a way that opened doors to me.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Was there ever any other career path in your mind as you grew up? I'm sure you've encountered people who say, “Well, try something practical.”

KEENE: Yeah. Yeah.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Were you ever considering anything else?

KEENE: You know, not really. When I was a kid and you're asked that in school, I always said that I wanted to be an architect, which had nothing to do with me knowing what that even meant. But on a certain level, I loved buildings and that kind of thing, in a kid-like, superficial way. So that's the answer I always gave.

But by the time I was thinking about college-level study and careers and earning a living, music was my life, frankly. I just couldn't imagine doing anything else.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You start on this path to being an accompanying pianist. And then comes opera. It's such a bigger scale than—let’s say—a recital. How do you make that leap?

KEENE: Well, I was really lucky to end up at the University of Southern California. When I was there—and still to this day—they have a very strong opera and voice program.

I went to a woman named Natalie Limonick who's now passed away, but at the time she was running the opera program at USC. And I told her I really was seriously wanting to pursue this. And she said, “Well, I have a class for pianists to study opera coaching. And I think you should sign up for it,” which is exactly what I did.

I can remember the first day of it. I was completely overwhelmed because I felt like everybody else was so far ahead of me. And I was completely green. But rather than turn me off or make me feel like I'll never catch up, I just was determined to absorb it.

And again, I think the thing that saved it was the fact that I just loved it. The more I studied it, the more I tried to answer questions, the more I just became aware of the richness of it. And the fact that the repertoire is so enormous and so rich and so deep in so many ways—there's not enough time in a lifetime to really wrap your head around it.

I know that can sound overwhelming and daunting, but for me, it's actually kind of a comfort because it feels like, “Don’t panic. Don't worry when you feel overwhelmed. Everybody is, because nobody can absorb all that.”

And rather than feeling overwhelmed, I was kind of like, “This is fantastic. I can lose myself in this. There will never be an end to what needs to be studied and uncovered.”

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You’ve worked with so many leaders in this field. Were there people who gave you a model for what you wanted to do?

KEENE: Yes. For sure. I would say Gwendolyn Koldofsky at USC. And she would certainly be one of those. But even before that, there was a very lovely gentleman named David Garvey.

David was [famed soprano] Leontyne Price’s accompanist. He had been in school, at Juilliard, with Leontyne. So they knew each other as students. And when her career started to take off, she called him and asked if he would be able to work with her and tour with her.

He was teaching and coaching singers at the University of Texas when I was a student there. I was much too young and green to be directly involved with him, but his studio was right next to my piano teacher’s studio. And I would often hear him working with singers through the door.

And again, it just completely attracted me. I would actually sometimes linger out there just to hear what was coming through the door. And he, out of sheer kindness, one day said, “You're really interested in this, aren't you?” And I said, “I think so. I don't really know.”

And he—just very kindly—made time to talk with me about what the career really was like and what it demanded. And honestly, I would say that was probably one of the most important things that happened to me, because he was able to give me some really practical information. But basically he just really reinforced to me that this was possible and that I wasn't crazy to think that maybe this is what I wanted to do.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You've worked with so many companies across the country, from Miami to St. Louis and most recently in Seattle. What was your first time taking over a gigantic kind of chorus organism?

KEENE: This isn't exactly conducting, but I will say one of the seminal memories I have is that when I was in college, we were doing a college production of The Rape of Lucretia by Benjamin Britten. And I was just a lowly undergraduate coach.

It was the piano dress rehearsal. And I came thinking I was going to sit in the audience and observe and take some notes for people, which means writing down comments that people want to remember for later.

I got there and I could see something was going on. And people ran up to me and said, “You have to play. Everyone is ill who could do this. There’s nobody else.” And I played without any warning. There was no conductor. Even the conductor was sick. I don't really remember how this happened. It must've been a flu or something that struck a bunch of people.

But I do remember they pulled the piano on stage because there was no conductor and I played the entire score with no warning from cover to cover. I just wanted to get to the end fairly unscathed. And at the end, the cast on stage applauded for me.

It really was a light-bulb moment for me: “Oh, I think I have the ability to do this.”

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: I am sure that you face the stereotype that you, as a chorus director, are in charge of a homogenous entity.

KEENE: Yes.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What are the most common stereotypes or misconceptions that you encounter about chorus work? And how do you combat them and illustrate why the reality might be otherwise?

KEENE: Oh, that's a fantastic question. I could speak for the next four hours about that. I won't, I promise. I really feel so strongly about that topic.

First of all, I hear it within the profession. Singers, especially young singers who are trying to find their way professionally, will say things like, “Oh, I don't want to take a chorus job because I don't want to be labeled as a chorister. I'm really trying to forge a solo career.”

And I really generally take those people aside and take them to task and say, “Look, what you're really doing is turning down work that can provide you income in your chosen field.”

The wonderful thing about working in the chorus is that you have the opportunity to learn your craft and to work on your personal relationship with your craft on stage in a real situation in front of a live audience. So it's not a workshop or a test situation. It's a reality. But you don't have the pressure of singing the leading role. And that's a wonderful gift.

So many wonderful, successful soloists started in the chorus or maybe even went quite a long distance in the chorus. And nowadays there are a large number of people who had successful solo careers who decided they don't want to travel that much or they don't want that pressure.

Perhaps it's a family situation. They want to be more in one place and raise a family, that kind of thing. They've chosen. It's not because they had to or that it was the best they could hope for.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What you're most looking forward to? I'm sure it's all the packing and the traveling.

KEENE: I’m really just excited and looking forward to learning to know this group of people. I know that San Francisco Opera as a company has an incredible legacy and an incredible reputation. And I know the level that they've already achieved.

My excitement is to get to know this chorus and how we can together form an ensemble that lets everybody shine and that celebrates everybody's various strengths. I just find that’s so much of what I'm drawn to.

Tag along as John Keene becomes San Francisco Opera's next chorus director, by following him on Instagram or checking out his website, john-keene.com.

In Memoriam 2021